Dean Kamen is best known as the inventor of the Segway scooter. His career illustrates the difficulty of turning innovative ideas into reality
“AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD today sees the internet with about as much fascination as you see the toilet,” says Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur. “To kids, they’re the same. Nothing magical, nothing exciting, just there when they need it. That’s how quickly technology changes—and it isn’t just moving fast, it’s moving at an accelerating rate.”
Mr Kamen knows all about speed. Over 40 frantic years of inventing, he has amassed more than 440 patents worldwide, saved thousands of lives and created at least one cultural icon—the balancing Segway scooter. Now he is turning his attention to nurturing the next generation of innovators. “I’m helping to create an army of kids that is going to build industries you and I won’t understand,” he says. “In 10 or 20 years, one of these kids is going to cure cancer or make an engine that doesn’t pollute. And as they receive their Nobel prize, someone is going to ask them what made them do it.”
Their answer, Mr Kamen hopes, will name-check FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a glitzy robotics competition that he started in 1989 and which now attracts over 200,000 entrants annually from schools in 56 countries. Working in teams supervised by a professional scientist or engineer, children construct and control robots in a series of competitive challenges, egged on by cheerleaders, screaming parents and the prospect of scholarships worth $12.2m in 2010 alone.
If that all sounds suspiciously similar to American high-school sports, it is no accident. “I want kids to realise that engineering and problem solving are every bit as fun and rewarding as bounce, bounce, bounce, throw,” says Mr Kamen. “I want FIRST to compete with the Superbowl, the World Series and the Olympics. The next generation of real wealth is going to be produced in fields like proteomics, genomics and nanotechnology. For that you need world-class technology people, and if kids don’t get on the train very early, it’s left the station.”
Despite his focus on the future, Mr Kamen’s corner office at DEKA, his design and research company based in Manchester, New Hampshire, is crammed with icons of scientific and technological history. There’s a Galilean thermometer on his desk and Einstein memorabilia in every corner. Fading cartoons of his Segway adorn the bare brick walls. Mr Kamen is a man who lives science, breathes technology and can’t quite understand why everyone else doesn’t feel the same way.
“If you look at the way science and technology are presented today, it’s worse than they just don’t get their fair share of time,” he says. “It’s like somebody brilliantly set out to undermine any prospect for the average kid—especially girls and minorities—to feel excited about science. When children see a scientist on television, it’s either a squeaky, geeky misfit kid or a middle-aged white male with frizzy hair and a German accent.”